Politics & Policy

Kucinich’s Continued Evolution

What exactly is the presidential candidate's abortion position?

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, is the first to admit that his views on abortion have evolved.

“I’ve had a journey on this issue that a year ago, before I became a candidate for president, caused me to break from a voting record that had not been pro-choice,” Kucinich says on his campaign website.

But the break with his past hasn’t been entirely clean. In January, for example, Kucinich dispatched a staffer, Allison Murphy, to represent him at Ohio Right to Life’s annual breakfast in Washington. Kucinich was one of several ostensibly pro-life lawmakers who either attended or sent an aide to the breakfast, where Ohio’s two Republican senators told the audience of 1,300 that partial-birth abortions would soon be illegal.

Those predictions moved a step closer reality last week, when the House voted overwhelmingly to ban the procedure.

Kucinich has previously supported such legislation, although the last time it came up for a vote, in July 2002, he voted “present.” On Wednesday, Kucinich took to the House floor to denounce the bill. But his words didn’t ease the residual tensions embedded in Kucinich’s stance on abortion.

“Let’s all be clear,” he began, “the bill before us is unconstitutional because it does not contain an exemption for the health of the woman who seeks to exercise her reproductive rights. There is no doubt about that.”

Kucinich cited the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down Nebraska’s prohibition of partial-birth abortions because it didn’t allow an exception if the mother’s health was in danger. “Opponents of the right to reproductive choice should know that,” Kucinich said.

His spokesman, Doug Gordon, said the Stenberg ruling is a key reason for his boss’s change of heart. “There’s been a Supreme Court ruling on this since his last vote for it,” Gordon said.

Indeed, in April 2000, less than three months before the court handed down its Stenberg ruling, Kucinich voted to ban partial-birth abortions. The legislation, which subsequently died, didn’t include an exemption to allow the procedure if the mother’s health was at stake.

Kucinich’s invocation of Stenberg raises some questions. If the 2000 partial-birth-abortion vote had come a month after the court’s ruling, not a few months before, would Kucinich have opposed it on constitutional ground? If the court had ruled differently, would Kucinich have voted against the ban last week?

Gordon dismissed such questions as irrelevant “what-ifs.”

Later in his speech on the House floor, Kucinich lashed out at the partial-birth-abortion-ban’s supporters, a group that included 62 Democrats.

“Advocates of this bill who say they stand in defense of life would be more believable if they worked to support families with adequate child-care funding, child tax-credit relief for vulnerable families, and peace,” Kucinich said. “For some, this debate is only about politics. The fact that other abortion legislation, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, has been advanced on the publicity of the Laci Peterson tragedy shows the unfortunate politicization of this debate.”

Kucinich’s vitriol seems surprising in light of his not-so-distant support of the partial-birth-abortion ban.

Also surprising is that he singled out the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would make it a federal crime to harm a fetus during the commission of another felony. Kucinich voted for the same bill in both October 1999 and April 2001, the last time the House considered it. The legislation, recently dubbed “Laci and Connor’s Law,” is now pending in the House and Senate.

Many Democrats and pro-choice groups oppose the bill on the grounds that by treating a fetus as a distinct human entity that has a right not to be harmed, the law is paving the way toward outlawing abortion. But Kucinich is hardly a traditional Democrat on this issue. Indeed, he has said he still believes that life begins at conception.

So does Kucinich oppose a law that would penalize someone for harming a fetus? That is unclear, apparently even to his staff. When asked where Kucinich stands on the unborn victims bill, Gordon said he didn’t know and repeatedly promised to call back with more information. He never did.

David Enrich is a reporter for States News Service in Washington, D.C.


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